Game Preview: Celtics at Knicks

BOSTON – It may have taken more than seven months, but Opening Day has finally arrived.

The Boston Celtics will begin their 2011-12 season at noon on Christmas Day against the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden.

It has been a while since these teams met on the court, but they know each other all too well. The Knicks’ 2010-11 season came to an end in sweeping fashion at the hands of the Celtics in late-April. Boston took all of the steam out of New York’s sails as the C’s dominated the rivals’ first-round playoff series.

Since then, a lot has happened, from a five-month lockout to both teams undergoing major roster moves. As expected, both of these teams are excited about their current state and believe they can make a run at a championship.

For Boston, that cannot happen without Paul Pierce. The Celtics’ captain has been sidelined for almost the entire preseason with a bruised right heel. He did not play a single minute in the preseason and has been questionable for Sunday’s game.

Although Boston’s top scorer hasn’t had much of a preseason, Doc Rivers says that if head athletic trainer Ed Lacerte gives the thumbs up, Pierce will be on the court at noon on Sunday.

“I have to see Eddie tell me that he can play,” Rivers said Wednesday night. “If he tells me that, he’s playing. I don’t care how many practices (he has had).”

Even though Rivers left that door open, he seemed to close it a bit after Friday’s practice.

"I think we'll know better [Saturday],” Rivers said on Friday. “Paul may wake up and say, 'Coach, I wanna go.' I can tell you this, it's very unlikely he'll start if he plays. I don't think that'll happen. If he does play, he'll play 15 to 20 minutes, but right now, I don't see him playing."

If Pierce doesn’t play the likely replacement in the starting lineup will be Sasha Pavlovic. Rivers started Pavlovic during the team’s final preseason game on Wednesday night. Pavlovic was with the team for the final three months of the 2010-11 season and understands Boston’s system. If he starts it would allow Rivers to play Marquis Daniels with the second unit, which will pay dividends in helping that group grow its continuity early on in the season.

The rest of Boston’s team seems to be healthy heading into the opener. The team’s new acquisitions played very well in the preseason, particularly Brandon Bass. He was the team’s second-leading scorer in exhibition action with 10.5 PPG. That’s about the total the C’s would like to get out of him during the regular season, because he will be the primary scorer off the bench.

None of the talk revolving around the Knicks is about their bench. Their starters are the key. New York already had the superstar forward combo of Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, but they added to the group this month when they signed free agent center Tyson Chandler. With his acquisition, New York now possesses the best frontline in all of basketball.

Filling out New York’s starting lineup are young guards Toney Douglas and Landry Fields.

Douglas takes over the starting point guard role after the Knicks used the amnesty clause on Chauncey Billups just a couple of weeks ago. Douglas is known more as a scorer and defender, but Mike D’Antoni is now relying on him to run his complicated and fast-paced offense.

Fields will hold down the starting shooting guard position for the second consecutive season. He garnered much attention from the national media for his underwhelming performance against the Celtics in the 2011 playoffs. He averaged just 1.8 PPG and 1.3 RPG in 17.8 minutes of play during the four-game series. The Knicks have to hope that he will shake off those memories from April and perform at a high level on Sunday.

The rest of the Knicks will need to do the same. Boston dominated New York during that series, and it was a true statement that the Knicks simply weren’t at a championship level yet. Both of these teams believe they’re on that level now, and we’ll see which one of the two takes its first step toward that goal with a victory on Christmas Day.

The benches

Boston’s bench doesn’t have the sexy names this season that it has in the past, but it has players who can contribute. One thing Danny Ainge and Rivers wanted to do this offseason was to put together a younger and more athletic bench. They accomplished that goal, all the while bringing in players who already know how to perform as reserves.

Almost the entire bench is made up of newcomers, but Keyon Dooling, the group’s point guard, believes this bench packs a lot of punch.

“I would think that Brandon has to be a big part of our offense, I think he’ll be our best scorer off the bench,” Dooling said after Wednesday night’s win. “I think Marquis can give us a lot of different things, not just in the scoring category, but just having the ball in his hands is pretty good. On any given night I can get hot, on any given night Chris’ (Wilcox) energy can show up in the rebound and point column so it might come from a lot of different places.”

That definitely cannot be said for the Knicks. When Jared Jeffries and Mike Bibby are your top reserves, trouble is on the horizon.

The Knicks do, however, have some young talent that may emerge this season. Iman Shumpert and Josh Harrellson were their draft picks this year and both showed promise during the preseason. Renaldo Balkman, in his second tour of duty with New York, has emerged as a potential factor and was the team’s second-leading scorer in the preseason with 13.0 PPG.

These benches will be key for both of these teams this season. On Sunday, whichever bench performs at a higher level will likely lead their team to victory.

Protecting the rim

The two starting centers in this game, Jermaine O’Neal and Chandler, will be looked upon to protect their team’s rim throughout this season. That is their job first and foremost, and it will be critical during this game.

The Knicks have a lot of players who like to drive to the basket, including their two superstars. Boston needs O’Neal to protect the rim without fouling those Knicks on Sunday.

For Chandler, things might be a bit easier in that department. Rajon Rondo is really the only Celtic player who drives to the basket on a consistent basis. With that being said, Rondo is one of the best finishers in traffic in the NBA. He won’t shy away from driving to the rack and he may be able to overcome Chandler’s incredible length.

The atmosphere

NBA fans have been waiting a very long time to see meaningful games, and that moment has finally arrived. New York, in particular, is a city that is excited for this season because their team finally has a chance to make noise in the playoffs.

With all of those factors playing into Sunday’s game, you’d expect Madison Square Garden to be as loud as ever on Christmas Day. But that’s what we all expected during the playoffs last season, too, and the New York crowd did not deliver in that department.

The energy was high in the Garden during the playoffs last season, but the crowd was relatively silent. Is that because Boston dominated those two games so much? Maybe, maybe not. No matter what the reason was, New York’s crowd was silent and did not affect the Celtics one bit.

Boston would be glad to experience an underwhelming crowd again on Sunday, while the Knicks will be hoping for a much more electric atmosphere that can help lead them to victory.